Google's fleets of ladybug-like Street View cars are a common site in the world's greatest cities, but how do you drive through a city without streets? In Venice, Google has found a way, strapping its 360-degree cameras to helmets, vaporettos, and gondolas to capture the secret paths, hidden crannies, and aqueous passages of one of the world's most beautiful—and least probable—cities.
Built upon wood pilings linked by bridges overstretching the sinuous canals between 118 small islands in a lagoon in the north of Italy, the 1,200-year-old city of Venice seems more appropriate to a world built upon water than on the shifting hides of continents. That's because it was built on such a world: Venice owes its wealth, its fame, and its prestige to its origins as a maritime trade center between Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic world, and the Far East beyond.
To explore Venice, Google needed to take to the water, and so they have floated an apparent first, the Street View Gondola, to take you through the organic labyrinthine passageways that have made the city so romantic, exotic, mysterious, and haunting to so many tourists. In fact, taking a tour through Venice using Street View is only second to the real thing.
Using Street View, not only tour Venice by gondola, but by vaporetto, the Italian word for one of Venice's fleet of canal-traversing boat-buses. You can even wander around on foot. Sitting in a coffee shop in Cambridge, I was transported through my web browser to a secret pizza spot where I ate three meals a day during my time in Venice as a 19-year-old backpacker more than 15 years ago.
Nor will you miss out on the history and culture of Venice by taking a Street View tour instead of going. Exploring Venice in Street View, you can compare the city today to the city-state of half-a-millennium ago, and learn about the buildings and locations you find thanks to handy pop-ups and overlays. In fact, since you miss out entirely on the crowds, the pigeons, and the stink of the canals, you could make the argument that touring Venice by Street View is a better way of seeing the city than actually going.
What's really impressive to me isn't that Google managed to digitally capture the streets of Venice, but the way the entire project blends the past and present together into a living document written upon the skin of Venice itself. I have always suspected that Google Street View might turn out to be one of the most valuable records of our times to future historians looking to learn more about us. Consider this the proof-of-concept.